Using Databases


A simple definition of a database: a structure that stores and organizes data in tables. For more details see the Wikipedia article on databases.


  • They can be used to organize data that have complex relationships.
  • They can be constructed in ways that make data entry easy and data retrieval fast.
  • They can be set up to allow multiple users to enter/query data.
  • They can hold large amounts of data. In some cases, databases point to data rather than directly containing it.


  • The most important step in constructing a database is planning. Focus on understanding your data. What relationships exist between the elements? Develop a data model and apply the concepts of normalization to optimize it.
  • Evaluate your data model. Will it allow you to query the data and finds the kinds of answers you want from your database?
  • Determine if you will need to create forms or reports for data entry/query to use with the database.
  • Build a practice database and run test queries. Does it give you the information you expect?
  • Be sure to back up your database.


  • Use a commercial database software, such as Access or Filemaker to create a database. These applications allow you to create query, report, and/or data entry forms. These applications may be suitable for your needs if relationships between your data elements are not very complex.
  • Build a database using an open source database engine such as MySQL or Postgres. These can accommodate data with complex relationships and support large database size. There are integrative applications available that help you build databases and queries within the MySQL or Postgres environment.


Natural Sciences data plans (scroll down)A list of representative examples compiled by the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Science at the University of Michigan.
Sample data management plan for depositing data with ICPSRThe Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Science at the University of Michigan provides a sample data plan that includes descriptions of documentation, access, and archiving considerations for data that will be deposited in their repository.
Data plan for Nitrogen Cycle card gameDeveloped for an educational game project at the UW-Madison.
Notes toward a data plan: Lakeshore Nature PreserveDeveloped for the UW-Madison Lakeshore Nature Preserve.